Bright Old Thing

D.A.N. Jones

  • Letters of Conrad Russell: 1897-1947 edited by Georgiana Blakiston
    Murray, 278 pp, £16.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 7195 4382 7

Conrad Russell was a nephew of the ninth Duke of Bedford: every publisher in Great Russell Street and Bedford Square must have wanted to publish his selected letters, if only from simple loyalty to the landowner. Russell’s life was not remarkable, on the surface. Evelyn Waugh said he was ‘exquisitely entertaining’, but this is ambiguous: he may have meant that Russell was a figure of fun, like William Boot. When Russell died in 1947 he was described in the Times as ‘that most endearing of Somerset farmers’ – the best tribute they could come up with. Russell was ever a countryman, proud of his mangels: raised in rural Surrey, he was discomposed in towns. He wrote to his sister in 1902 when he was 24: ‘I have never found London life so unattractive before. The young men at Scoones do not amuse me much but I seem to amuse them for they laugh consumedly every time I open my mouth. I think it is because my voice is different from theirs.’ Worse was to come. In 1937 he wrote to Diana Cooper about a member of his London club who had raised an objection about Russell ‘talking farming’. The complaint ran: ‘It’s really unbearable. I sometimes think I’ll scream, it suffocates me.’ Russell concedes: ‘Well, you never see yourself as others see you. I’m THE club bore and never knew it.’

Londoners, even now, may feel inclined to join in that old scream of boredom when confronted with Russell’s letter to Katharine Asquith in 1925: ‘The Mangels are in the pulling and now one sees ’em in heaps they make a fine show ... The Kale too is very good. The Wheat is up and green.’ He was an eager, Boot-like birdwatcher, but in his youth had few other aesthetic pleasures, confessing to his sister: ‘Pictures give me no pleasure, architecture a little but practically none. Sculpture absolutely none, moreover music, poetry and singing give me no pleasure. It is a sad fact.’ He was never sent to school and could not spell. It is all too easy to present him as Squire Booby of Booby Hall. Before going up to Oxford he had to be coached by a Mr Smith (later the Master of Balliol), while Mrs Smith endeavoured to enliven him by singing a comic song: ‘My jolly red nose, caused by gin, I suppose.’ Despite intensive coaching, he nearly failed the Oxford entrance test, which consisted of easy General Knowledge questions about the Holy Bible.

The poor booby was then made to study Modern History and, in his frustration and grief, he made a bonfire of his furniture in a quadrangle. He would have liked to read Greats, but feared he was not clever enough: in his maturity he tried to read Latin verse, Greek philosophy and Ancient History, hoping to catch up with his very clever friends and understand the meaning of life. ‘He was ungraceful in movement and he early acquired a stoop,’ writes his niece, Georgiana Blakiston. ‘His long legs were slightly bent when he walked and he turned his large feet out in a position sometimes known as ten minutes to two.’

The photographs in her book promote her view of young Russell as ‘a wistful childish figure with drooping head and downcast eyes’, and show that the older Russell maintained the same hopeless, slouching stance. We see him propped up between two of his correspondents, Katharine Asquith and Diana Cooper: they seem to fear he might fall over. In his Home Guard uniform Russell resembles the lovable Godfrey of Dad’s Army, so that it is horrid to imagine what a beastly sergeant-major might say to him: ‘Well, well, what have we here? Is it a Womble? Is it Winnie-the-Pooh?’

In fact, Russell was always treated with loving care by the lower ranks, who found no fault in him. There is another picture of Russell looking rather tragic in a mangel-field with three Somerset yokels, a boy and a dog. Among them are the much-quoted Brixey and Carter Mounty. Russell was fond of them: he wrote to Katharine Asquith in 1930:

Miss George is recovered and I can hear her singing ‘Life is a farce sitting on the grass’ in their sitting room. She looks vulgar I know and Teddy drinks and is dirty. Brixey puts cowdung in the milk. Noakes’s temper is uncertain and Pothecary never does anything I tell im but I think I’ve got the nicest servants anyone ever had.

Mounty, the Carter, always has an encouraging word for the despondent Russell. ‘“Perhaps you’ll come and do a bit of ploughing tomorrow,” he says in “a hopeful and polite voice”’. Russell writes to Diana Cooper: ‘It’s wonderful of him to take that line and not think “Silly old fool. What a bore he is with his idiotic idea of being a ploughman.” ’ In the Home Guard, Russell is put on duty with the Carter and another rustic: ‘We are all farm workers – I expect that is why they put us together,’ says the Carter. Russell confides to a woman: ‘I like him thinking of me like that.’ The Carter cuts Russell’s hair: ‘A man who can cut eight acres of wheat in a day thinks nothing of cutting my hair. He cuts it with scissors but his father who was a shepherd always cut their hair with shears.’ While barbering, the tactful Carter Mounty tells Russell (aged 66) that he looks only 45, but he adds: ‘Of course you’re an oldish man really. I expect you begin to feel old too ... God knows I do.’ All the references to Carter Mounty (and to Brixey) are charming, magical.

Russell wrote most of these three hundred-odd letters to women, his mother, sisters and trusty female friends: only seven are shyly addressed to men. The Earl of Oxford and Asquith has remarked elsewhere that his own mother, Katharine Asquith, preserved almost a thousand of Russell’s letters. Georgiana Blakiston suggests that ‘the great loves of his life were for women who were not free to marry him, thereby furnishing protection from decisive action.’ Lord Byron (also on John Murray’s list) once remarked:

Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife,

He would have written sonnets all his life?

Russell never married.

He was of that company called ‘the lost generation’, as described by Jeanne Mackenzie in Children of the Souls: she concentrated on Raymond Asquith, Edward Horner and six other subalterns killed in World War One. They seemed, in Diana Cooper’s view, to have no appetite for life: ‘they had grown up,’ said Jeanne Mackenzie, ‘in a society that was half in love with death.’ Russell served in that war, survived it and could not forget it. He proposed marriage to Katharine Asquith, Raymond’s widow and Edward Horner’s sister, but she refused him: she became a Roman Catholic in 1924 and her Somerset home was a centre for people of her Church. Russell was involved in this scene, for he had taken over the home farm at Mells, but he was irreligious, anti-Church, for most of his life and he poured cold water on the Asquith piety, making mock of the Roman Catholic writers in the circle, particularly the talented and sinful Hilaire Belloc and Evelyn Waugh.

Many members of the lost generation wrote home from the front to women. Here is one of Raymond Asquith’s harrowing letters to Diana Cooper:

I have lived for a week almost entirely in muck ... We had to stumble about slobbering in rubber snouts like animals in a pantomime ... I was in a wood where all the trees had been cut off by shells and nothing remained but black stumps of the most obscene height and thickness – craters swimming in blood and dirt, rotting and swelling bodies and rats like shadows fattened for the market moving cunningly and liquorishly among them, limbs and bowels nesting in the hedges ... The only dug-out turned out to be a ‘dirt-trap’ if not a death-trap, awash with sewage and stale eye-balls ...

We may contrast Russell’s letter to Raymond’s wife, after a bloody killing:

Something happened which affected me, Katharine, and I haven’t told anyone about it ... I can’t believe now the things I saw. I’m not wanting to frighten or harrow you – probably you are past that. It’s difficult to explain how sweet those men all were to me and what they did ... There was my own cook who looked after me as if I was his father ... He was clearly in dreadful pain and he just caught hold of my hand and said ‘Don’t let them send me away from the regiment.’ It looks awful written down – like the worst things in the Daily Mail – but it wasn’t like that when it happened ... I began to feel that as long as I could do anything to make their lives a little more bearable and shield them from the bullying and nagging of brutal generals I ought to stay with them ...

Russell was a motherly sort of man, with no fighting spirit at all, but he did his duty as a squadron leader. ‘I am so lacking in energy and dislike it so,’ he wrote to a woman. ‘Perhaps if you had been a soldier you would understand better. Unless you were like Raymond and fond of it. But it is very rare indeed to be one of those.’

Russell’s attitude to the soldiers under his command was reverent: ‘I have never, seen a General who was good enough to black their boots.’ He was respectful towards the same men in their civilian lives: ‘Very few people seem to know the great goodness of the English peasantry. They are the salt of the earth and worthy to rank with the saints.’ In this mood he voted Labour in 1918. His war experience still haunted him. In 1939 he wrote to Diana Cooper: ‘Every day was unrelieved misery to me and it has poisoned my life in recollection ever since and it is what I still dream about and wake up frightened. I don’t see how this one can be worse as I haven’t got the friends to be killed any more.’ A year later he was ‘told to organise the Local Defence Volunteers’ in Somerset: ‘I was stunned with horror and implored them to find a younger man. I was practically told it was an order ... I was 40 when I came out of the last war and to think of my being at it again.’ In 1941 he writes: ‘Boer war two and three-quarter years, Great war four and a half years and now in my grand climacteric I’m in Khaki (covered with medals) a rifle, a bayonet, and bullets for killing Germans or being killed by them as the case may be. Can’t War be abolished?’ In 1943 he writes: ‘How awful the thought is that we are alive and contemporaries of the greatest systematic massacre of innocent people ever known since the world began. Is it enough realised? There can be no doubt it’s a fact.’

All the same, during World War One, he observed some rare birds and began to appreciate Shakespeare. With Horace he made rather slow progress. In 1926 he is confidently asserting that there are three kinds of poet: ‘Good – Virgil and Shakespeare; Second-rate poets – Catullus, Keats ...; Rotten poets– Horace, Wordsworth ... Maurice Baring.’ (Baring was a friend of his.) By 1945, Russell is beginning to see reason.

When I did my odes of Horace abed this morning the last line said: ‘And here you shall shed tears of affection over the ashes of your poet friend.’ People say Horace is a popular poet because he always has something to say which just fits the case. And so it seemed this time. The praise of Maurice by Trenchard in today’s Times is praise indeed.

Maurice Baring had just died and Russell, although agnostic, had paid for a mass to be said for his soul. In 1946 half his letter to Diana Cooper is about Horace – ‘Oh he was a great poet ... He is the most unchristian writer who ever took up a pen ... He seems to me a poet for tough men of 60’ – and then Russell gets thoughtful and slightly bawdy.

Russell’s despondency is not always painful: ‘I’m not morbid about myself as a social failure because I know if I’m a good deal alone with people they like me in the end.’ On the other hand: ‘I’m 60 years old today. I’ve fuddled and muddled and bungled through life and learned nothing and not understood what it was all about.’ His arguments against Roman Catholicism do not seem to me very strong though many will sympathise with his complaints against ‘the boshy side of Catholicism’: he remarks that ‘Father Knox is at it again. This time it is the “Miracles of Henry VI”. The boshy side of Catholicism has a fatal attraction to that poor young chap.’ Later Monsignor Knox comes to work on Russell’s farm: ‘Has anyone got a farm like mine? In one field Lady Wey[mouth] doing Shepherdess to my flock and in another a Monsignor of the Roman Church pulling and topping swedes.’ The Church seems to be crowding in on him. A monk comes to stay. ‘When I light the bedroom candles he says: “O I haven’t said my office.” Then I say: “Not said your office, Father? That’s bad. You must say it now.” When I am snug in bed I like to think as I go off to sleep: There’s a monk downstairs saying his office.’

About most of the writers he meets he is catty, possibly jealous. He says of his old friend, John Buchan: ‘Of course he wasn’t in the same street as Raymond ... When I talk of him with any of our old friends of Oxford days I find we think him slightly ridiculous ... His stories were (for me) simply unreadable.’ He asked J.M. Barrie, ‘in a mad fit of tenderness’, to come and visit him: ‘I wonder the words didn’t choke me. Poor old thing, he looks so awful.’ Among the Roman Catholics there is Hilaire Belloc: ‘he is gay, sings and recites his own verses. It’s all rather painful.’ Among other stupid remarks, Belloc tells Russell, in 1942, that the Germans are much less efficient in military matters than the French and Italians. Russell comments: ‘I suppose I’ve heard Hilaire talk more rot than any other man I know.’ Then there is Evelyn Waugh, generally known as ‘Mr Wu’ – not, I think, from George Formby’s comic songs, but from the London melodrama, Mr Wu, which inspired Puccini’s Turandot in the Twenties. ‘If all Wu’s stories were thrown into the fire,’ writes Russell, ‘no one could say the world would be poorer. There would be some ground for saying “and a good job too.” ’ Even Decline and Fall offended Russell. ‘After reading 100 pages with difficulty I’ve laid it aside. It must be jealousy,’ he tells Diana Cooper. ‘I looked in vain for any of those bright fruity monosyllabic words which Maurice bawls out at your luncheon parties ... Now I know why poor Mr Wu appears to enjoy such very low spirits. It must be a sad task to write like that.’

The over-confident hostility to Waugh’s books is connected with Russell’s resistance to Roman Catholicism. It was the same with Maurice Baring, who dedicated books to Russell, winning the comment: ‘For God’s sake don’t tell anyone but I do sometimes wonder if Maurice’s books are worth writing.’ In 1944 (honoured with ‘an early edition de luxe’) Russell rages against Brideshead:

At page 77 of Wu’s novel in comes Catholic propaganda. It might have been copied from any novel written by Maurice twenty-five years ago. It’s the Catholic who says he envies unbelievers, it’s so tiresome believing it all but he simply can’t fight against all the evidence ... Tralala – it’s a gramophone record converts put on.

He goes on raging against this book in three more letters:

Wu specialises in writing about unimportant and contemptible people – ladida night club life ... What an old snob he is with his showing off ... Propaganda is for saints and theologians. And Wu (bless his grimey little soul) is neither.

Particularly offensive is all the mumbo-jumbo about old Marchmain receiving the sacrament on his death bed and making the sign of the cross. ‘You don’t get into heaven that way,’ expostulates Russell. ‘It’s a nervous trick.’ We can all see what is going to happen now. Roman Catholics will be satisfied to learn that Russell was received into their Church on his death bed, three years later. Even Anglicans can see he was crying out for it. Perhaps Russell ought to have made his mind up sooner and become a monk, or a nuns’ priest.